James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Recently I mentioned WNYC's map of airports where Malaysia Airlines 370 might theoretically have landed, considering how far the plane might have flown and how large a runway it would have required. The map, I said, was great but just short of perfection, since it was static rather than interactive.
Reader David Strip, of New Mexico, has graciously moved us closer to perfection on the mapping front. He has used runway data from OurAirports to populate a map, in a way that represents two big steps forward. First, the runways are color-coded by length. As mentioned earlier, a 777 could, in a pinch, get itself down on one of the tan-colored runways, which are 4,500 to 7,000 feet long. But it would prefer to find a runway that was red, purple or green, with lengths of 7,000 feet and up.
Second, if you click on any of the individual dots on this map, you'll see popup information about the site -- runway length, location, elevation, etc.
You can also zoom in and out of the map, and pan around, for a closer look at places you are interested in.
Strip worked from the same assumptions about airport length and travel directions as in the WNYC map; assumptions and information about the airplane's route may have changed since then. (He also used Google Fusion Tables, rather than our usual Esri map tools; hey, it's a free country.) But this map is a very useful and clarifying addition, for which I thank Strip and invite you to try it out.
Update: To be clear, as mentioned before I think that if the plane had actually landed at any of these sites, we would know it by now. But as an intellectual and cartographic exercise this map is interesting, and it's offered in that spirit.
Update: See previous articles at the bottom of this post.
The ongoing Malaysia 370 investigation coincides with my being in transit, with family, and away from the Internet most of each day. (Writing this from the passenger seat of a car on a four-hour drive, hoping that my TMobile hotspot via Samsung Galaxy III holds up.) Here is a quick update on some of the developments since the inflight dispatch yesterday:
1) Derek Thompson sums up recent news for the Atlantic. You can see it here.
2) Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What's most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight -- whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.
It's possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word "confirms," before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful "journalistic" figure in the world is ... well, it "confirms" a lot of judgments about Murdoch.
3) What about those cellphones? We all know that cellphones can minutely track our movements as we walk or bike through cities or drive through the countryside. So why aren't they being used to track this flight?
One answer: We don't know whether all the phones were seized and disabled, if this was a hijacking. Another: phones can track us in our normal life because we're operating right at ground level, and in places designed to offer phone coverage. At airliner-flight levels, 35,000 feet in the case of this plane, and at airliner speeds, there usually is no coverage. (Try to make a call from 30,000+ feet on your next cross-country flight.) At any altitude there is usually no coverage over open water or in remote, jungle, mountain, or desert areas, which describes most of the path of this flight. More in a good AP explainer here.
4) What about some other runway? Buried in our collective memory is the image from You Only Live Twice, or even Dr. No** (which I mention as an excuse to use the poster above), or other fantasy movies of a hidden, secret runway that magically opens up just long enough for an airplane to land, and then disappears or is covered over again. Sadly I do not see such an image on the Internet right now.
Based on the facts as now understood, it is conceivable that the plane, rather than crashing, was deliberately flown to some remote side. (In another Tweet, Rupert Murdoch said it would be somewhere similar to Osama bin Laden's Af-Pak hideout.)
The main challenge here is that a Boeing 777 is a big airplane, which needs a big, flat space on which to safely land. This Boeing technical manual suggests that in normal circumstances, you'd want 7,000 feet or more to land a plane full of passengers and have margin for error. Slatequoted a 777 pilot who said that if the plane was on fire (ie, the worst kind of in-flight emergency), he would try to put it down on anything above 5,000 feet.
WNYC has produced a map showing the 5,000-foot runways within conceivable flight range of the plane. Sample here:
Congrats for the work that went into this -- and I mean to sound supportive rather than churlish in hoping that the next version of the map will have popups giving the names of the relevant airports, plus elevation and runway length. My guess is that only a small fraction of those shown would be suitable -- by terrain, location, elevation, and other factors -- as a deliberate diversion site. And even if all of them were feasible, it's a finite list. Most airports that big would have control towers; in that part of the world, many would be military-run; and spy satellites can easily pick out mile-long runways from above.
My claim: if the plane had landed at a runway big enough to handle it, we would know that by now.
5) What about the 45,000-foot altitude claim, and the 40,000-feet-per-minute descent? Reports since last night speculated that the plane had climbed very high, and then descended very fast, perhaps indicating: an incompetent/amateur pilot; a professional pilot bent on disorienting the passengers or destroying the plane; or something else strange.
To put this in perspective: in normal airline flights, you have rarely if ever been above 40,000 feet. Most airliners operate in the high-20s through the high-30s, in thousands of feet. Assuming that pressurization systems still worked, passengers wouldn't necessarily have noticed a difference at 45,000.
They certainly would have noticed a 40,000-fpm descent. In normal airline flights, you've rarely if ever felt a descent of more than 2,000-fpm. Most of the time, airliners go down by 1,000 - 1,500 fpm. Descending 20 or 30 times that fast would mean that the plane was pointed more or less straight down, with engines running.
So if this happened, it would have been remarkable, and terrifying. And among the problems would be pulling out of the dive without subjecting the plane (and crew and passengers) to G-forces beyond what any of them were designed to tolerate.
6) What about the Chinese role? There will be a lot more here, but for now, before we head into an area where my little hotspot will give out, here is a note from a reader making good points:
Since you're one of the few people left who think of aviation as part and parcel of a national identity, the Chinese reaction has been fascinating as well.
1. The highly responsible and flexible response by the Chinese leadership
2. The obvious panic by the public and family members who are not being kept in the loop and may (or may not) have easy access to information.
3. The inability of said Chinese leadership to 100% control their own people (the satellite leak,etc).
The now default American security response (Terrorists! Coming to get us!) is pretty weak as well. Although one would hope the NSA can get away from Yahoo Chat for a few minutes to do something useful.
Overnight the Wall Street Journalreported (paywall) that the Boeing 777 flying as Malaysia Airlines 370 was transmitting data about its location for five hours after its transponders stopped functioning and it disappeared from normal Air Traffic Control coverage. Thus the forensic mystery I mentioned last night -- that there was no evidence that the plane did keep flying, and no evidence that it didn't -- is clarified. It leaves the disturbing mystery of why and where the plane would have been flying incognito.
This is my Annie Hall/ Marshall McLuhan moment for discussing the topic. At the moment I am sitting aboard a United Airbus A320, which (a) is equipped with WiFi, the third such WiFi moment I've ever had in my thousands of hours and millions of miles on United over the years, and where (b) I am sitting next to a dead-heading United pilot, who is telling me what he has learned and thought about Malaysia 370.
Here are several reactions from readers in light of the overnight news. They began with references to the expert I quoted yesterday, Michael Planey, who argued that there would be no point in requiring live-streaming of "black box" data.
Executive summary before we go further: This latest information obviously works against possibilities that the plane vanished from radar coverage because it blew up -- via bomb, some structural failure, missile strike, meteorite, what have you. The fact that the plane kept flying, with its transponders turned off, also works against any "pilot hypoxia" assumptions. (The idea that the pilots somehow both lost their oxygen supply and passed out, as happened in different circumstances 15 years ago in the Payne Stewart crash and in a crash in Greece in 2005.) If two pilots were simultaneously nodding off at the controls, there is no reason why their last conscious act would be to disable the transponders -- rather than radioing for help, descending into thicker air, reaching for the emergency oxygen bottles, etc. Possibilities involving deliberate destruction -- by the flight crew on its own, or by attackers who got control of the plane -- thus become more likely.
Now, the details. I am erring on the side of leaving in all the arcana, since cases like this often turn on precise interpretation of specifics.
1) On how the whole reporting system works. Reader John Shepley, who has experience in the data-reporting business, writes in to say:
Mr. Planey's analysis is mostly correct, but it was written before the knowledge we now have - that the plane did have electrical power as indicated by the registration 'pings' that the ACARS transmitter periodically sent to the satellites, even though the transmissions did not contain any data. (The operation is similar to the way that cell phones periodically transmit a registration signal to the nearest cell tower, even if the user is not using the phone at the time. That's how inbound calls can find the mobile phone.)
The satellite transceiver, such as the Rockwell Collins SAT-2100 is a metal box that sits in an avionics bay - not accessible from the cockpit. It receives the information that it transmits over a data bus from a control unit that is a similar box. A panel in the cockpit provides control functions, allows the pilots to tune the various radios and manages the many functions that the system performs.
A typical system looks like this:
It's likely that there is no power switch in the cockpit for the Satellite Radio or the VHF datalink radios.As seen in the diagram the CMU-9000 boc collects the data fro the GPS and other sensors and formats that data and sends it to the selected transmitter(s).
Commercial airliners don't typically carry HF radios which have a very long range, and are used mostly for polar regions. The VHF data radios would have an antenna on both the top and the bottom side of the aircraft, allowing line-of-sight transmissions even of the plane is in a steep bank or dive. The satellite radios would have an antenna on the roof of the aircraft that would certainly lose coverage if the plane were in a very steep bank or dive. While cockpit-accessible devices such as the transponder and messaging / control unit have power switches and can be turned off, the out-of-the way boxes are probably powered up whenever the aircraft's engines are running..
The voice recorders can provide more information than just the conversations in the cockpit. Several audio streams are recorded: One each from the pilot's and first officer's headset microphone, one or more wide field microphones that would pick up the ambient noise in the cockpit, and any radio or intercom communications. The ambient sounds can be particularly useful and can be used to determine an approximate origin of a loud noise. For example, if an engine compressor exploded in the right-side engine, the sound would reach the first officer's microphone a tiny bit sooner than it would reach the captain's microphone. These sounds and the subtle differences as recorded by each microphone can be analyzed and provide useful clues to events on the aircraft.
Given that we now know that the satellite radio did periodically ping the satellites and therefore, the plane continued flying for 4 hours, my bet is on the idea that someone took control of the cockpit and turned off the transponder and other cockpit equipment.
Ben Sandilands, of the Australian site Crikey, is also of reliably good value in explaining this case and other aviation issues. As is, of course, Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot.
2) "It would at least tell you which ocean to be looking in." From another person in the industry:
I'm a former ARINC engineer, still working in the business of aircraft communications and wanted to correct a lot of disinformation out there, some of which made it into your most recent article.
Michael Planey makes some good points but he doesn't seem to understand the types of communications systems that a modern airliner has and the different types of satellite links available.
1. ACARS data can be transmitted automatically off an aircraft one of four ways: VHF ACARS operating at low speed data to line of sight ground stations, VHF ACARS at high speed using VDL Mode 2 to line of sight ground stations, ACARS over Iridium satellite using short burst data, and HF ACARS where the data is transmitted by ionospheric propagation to one of several ground stations around the world.
2. Iridium satellites operate in low Earth orbit, and links to them do not require high gain directional antennas that are aimed at a particular spot in the sky. A low gain nondirectional antenna on the aircraft would still likely be able to reach an Iridium satellite regardless of the aircraft attitude (ok, maybe, maybe not if inverted). An aircraft in a dive would almost certainly still be able to reach one of the several Iridium satellites overhead.
3. It would be trivial to have all airliners send out a NMEA-coded GPS position report at periodic intervals (1 minute, 2 minutes, 10 minutes? whatever you want) on any of these links if an airline wanted to (or was required to) and transmit them to the airline operations centers or to an en route air traffic control facility (this is what will be coming with newer controller-pilot data link technology).
4. This isn't done because of the cost, not because of the technology. Airlines don't see a need for this and are reluctant to pay for it. That's really it. It is all about the economics. 99.9999+% of aircraft make it on these routes without incident and no companies want to pay costs for communications across the board that don't help their bottom line. Contrast this with how eager they were to know precisely when aircraft lifted off and set back on the runway so they could track crew flight hours (the original business case for ACARS) or tracking engine performance data so they can fix problems early before they become serious and costly. Now, if someone else paid for it they would probably do it.
One thing that would be interesting would be to see that if there had been any ACARS over Iridium messages whether they included any routing information (headers?) that would give the time of the message transmission and the identity of which Iridium satellite originally received it. Since these are LEO satellites that each cover a small part of the Earth, knowing which satellite and what time would allow us to know where that satellite was at the time and its coverage area and potentially narrow down the search area. It would at least tell you which ocean to be looking in.
3) Similarly, in a note that came in before the latest news.
"In that [Air France] case, some system failure reports and warnings were transmitted via ACARS [JF note: a data transmission system linking in-flight airplanes with ground stations] in the last moments before the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic."
"In the current case of MH 370, the same type of location data is available, but the search has been fruitless. "
That's not true. There is no way to know when MH370 crashed into the ocean, or even if it did. While they may not have known exactly where the wreckage of AF 447 was, I think people were certain it crashed into the Atlantic. The same can not be said for MH 370; we don't even know if it crashed into the ocean...
Planey assumes the only way for a plane to transmit data when out of range of land-based communications equipment is via satellite, and that that medium may not always be available in disasters. First of all, not all crashes would be preceded by satellite-disabling failures, so there would still be value in having access to that information. Also, I think there could be other ways for planes to transmit information, just like a radio station or shortwave radio. We would just need receivers scattered around the world continuously recording broadcasts of the relatively low bit-rate data. I don't think that would cost billions of dollars.
But I do agree with your headline, this is profoundly mysterious.
4) More robust flight tracking. From a reader who agrees with Mr. Planey's main argument: that there would be no point in requiring live-streaming of "black box" data.
I agree about the streaming of black box data. It would be hideously expensive, and black boxes are (at least until now) invariably found.
But I hope this episode (regardless of how it ends) leads to more robust flight tracking. It really is not acceptable that airplanes can vanish over water any more; there are simply too many flights over water, and the incidence of catastrophic events on such flights seems to be once every few years, if this and AF447 are any guide. It does not appear that the combination of ELTs and underwater pingers is nearly reliable enough to dependably locate the site of crashes into large bodies of water.
The structure for such tracking is largely in place with all large modern transports fitted with ADS-B; the remaining tasks seem to be around the robustness of the tracking.
5) On Malaysia. Disasters often have entirely unforeseen political and social effects. Chernobyl, Katrina, the Fukushima nuclear breakdown -- these all became shorthand for points about institutions in those countries and their newly revealed vulnerabilities. A reader in Asia introduces a point that's been on my mind, especially considering my oft-pronounced and sincere enjoyment of Malaysia and its people in the years my family lived there. The reader says:
I've lived/worked there 2X. I like it. the people, country, and most of all, food.
But they have serious problems. In two decades, they're falling behind in the region. To me, its 'crony capitalism', which exists in Indonesia as well (lived/worked there for almost 2 yrs)
This is going to be a millstone around their necks for the immediate future. And it was all preventable-if they had just been honest WITH THEMSELVES.
There is a lot this last note implies that needs to be more fully explained for people unfamiliar with Malaysia's strengths, weaknesses, and similarities and differences with Indonesia. That will have to wait for the next time. Thanks to all who wrote in (and thanks to United for ever-so-slowly closing the WiFi gap with Delta, Alaska, and other airlines).
(Please see update with the March 14 news.) Here is the heart of the mystery over what has happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370:
If the airplane did keep on flying, presumably there would be evidence of that fact -- at a minimum through "primary radar returns," blips on civilian or military radar screens showing that something was in the air even if the plane's transponder was not sending back specific identifying info.
If the airplane did not keep on flying, presumably there would be evidence of that -- through wreckage on the ground, oil slicks or debris in the sea, satellite detection of a flash or explosion at the relevant time.
As of now, six days later, there is no clear evidence of either type. Or other evidence to suggest difficulties with the weather (in contrast to Air France 447 -- and I'll have more on this soon), suspicious actions by passengers or attackers, problems with the flight crew, a pattern of failure with this kind of airframe, or any of the other usual components of the "accident chain" in aviation disasters. As I mentioned earlier, airline travel is now so amazingly safe that when something does go wrong, the cause usually turns out be some previously unforeseen triple-whammy combination of bad-luck factors. Air-safety experts refer to this as the "Swiss cheese" factor: the odd cases in which the holes in different slices of Swiss cheese happen to line up exactly, letting the improbable occur.
But so far MAS 370 is in a category of its own, in the shortage of useful data and the mismatch of what is known with most imagined scenarios. This is a source of additional heartache for affected families, anxiety for some in the traveling public, and embarrassment for the Malaysian officials clumsily running the search. (As mentioned, I am a fan of Malaysia-the-country and of Malaysia Airlines, but Malaysian safety officials are looking bad.) Yet it is the frustrating reality. The closest comparison would be the crash of TWA flight 800 18 years ago. The absence of data is itself a surprising data point.
Now, about one common pundit claim: If only we had better "black boxes," and more real-time streaming of black-box data, we'd be spared mysteries of this sort. Michael Planey, a Washington-area consultant who has worked for several airlines and did air-safety investigations for the Air Force, writes in to explain why this is a false hope.
I'm quoting his message in full detail, since in cases like this the details matter. If you don't want to deal with all the specifics, his main point is: the disappearance of this airplane remains profoundly mysterious, and would probably remain so even if one much-discussed "remedy" had been in place. I turn the floor over to Mr. Planey:
Would realtime streaming of black box data end the mystery of what happened to MH370? Probably not. Here’s why.
As the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 continues in earnest, many have called for the implementation of realtime streaming of black-box data. It is an understandable reaction to an inexplicable event: that a modern airliner could simply vanish without a trace. The thinking is that real-time black-box data would make it possible to locate the aircraft more quickly; to understand what had happened to the aircraft causing it to lose contact with air traffic control; to perhaps prevent an aircraft safety incident through monitoring of aircraft systems and highlighting suspect or anomalous data. But is that really the case with this aircraft and this flight? Unfortunately, I suspect not.
The last loss of a commercial airliner in trans-oceanic flight was Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009. In that case, some system failure reports and warnings were transmitted via ACARS [JF note: a data transmission system linking in-flight airplanes with ground stations] in the last moments before the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic. This data was useful in the preliminary understanding of the event, but it was not enough data to paint the complete picture of the complex system failures and flight crew actions that led to the crash, nor prevent it from happening.
In that case, the data transmission was of no particular use in locating the debris field. Rather, traditional air traffic control and radar data was used to pinpoint the last known location of Flight 447 and the search began at that point. The aircraft wreckage was located by the next day in the expected area. In the current case of MH 370, the same type of location data is available, but the search has been fruitless. This opens the up possibilities of the aircraft’s fate to scenarios where data-streaming would again be ineffective.
Given that the Boeing 777-200 aircraft on this flight had been recently inspected and operated without incident over the prior ten days, there are no red flags leading to a likely cause of the disappearance. Even though this aircraft was equipped with an ACARS system like the Air France flight, no relevant data transmissions were made. This reasonably points to a thoroughly unforeseen, catastrophic event (such as TWA Flight 800) or perhaps a deliberate action such as hijacking, terrorist action or even flight crew suicide.
In the case of the immediate, catastrophic event, data streaming would likely cease at the moment of the event. Either a complete loss of electrical power would disrupt the data stream or a mechanical break in the aircraft systems would prevent data transmission. Further, if an aircraft was in an out-of-control attitude such as a steep dive, a spin or a hard roll, maintaining a direct link with a satellite would be nearly impossible, thus again breaking the data stream and rendering the system incapable.
If the demise of MH370 is due to a deliberate action, realtime data-streaming is again unlikely to yield definitive answers. If hijackers were sophisticated enough to completely cut-off all communications (radios, ACARS, transponder, ADS-B) then it would stand to reason that the data link would be cut off in the same manner. Further, the detonation of a bomb would not show a prior indication of the event in the flight data-stream. Perhaps, the very slight chance of aircraft depressurization or loss of fuel volume would be detected at the moment, but it is unlikely that such a signal could be successfully transmitted before the communications system was rendered useless.
It is important to note that the “black-box” is actually a pair of boxes. The Flight Data Recorder secures information from a host of flight systems and the flight management computer. The Cockpit Voice Recorder captures the last 30 to 60 minutes of dialogue in the cockpit and adds significant context to the FDR data. In the investigation of AF447, the CVR was critical to understanding why the flight crew took the actions they did, even as the data could show what those actions were. Capture of both information streams would be necessary for a full picture of what was happening at the critical moment.
If days of intensive air and sea search efforts have yielded no clues, it is hard to believe that the aircraft and its crew were capable of providing any more useful information at the time the aircraft disappeared.
I have been offline most of these past few days and thus not weighing in on daily developments. But let me mention three items whose similarity concerns cast of mind.
1) Adam Gopnik on Crimea. This is several days old in The New Yorkerbut very much worth reading if you have missed it. For instance:
With Ukraine and Crimea suddenly looming as potential [WW I-style] Sarajevos, the usual rhetoric of credibility and the horrors of appeasement comes blaring from the usual quarters. People who, a week ago, could not have told you if Crimea belonged to Ukraine—who maybe thought, based on a vague memory of reading Chekhov, that it was Russian all along—are now acting as though the integrity of a Ukrainian Crimea is an old and obvious American interest. What they find worse than our credibility actually being at stake is that we might not act as though it always is.
As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we "have" to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay. Maybe there has been a case in which immediate reflex-response to big news has seemed wise in the long run. Right now I can't think of any.
Naturally this reminds me of an adage from the piloting world: In most emergencies, the crucial first thing to do is ... nothing. Take a deep breath, calm down, steady your nerves, count to 10, and then "fly the airplane" as you begin applying knowledge rather than panicked instincts to the options at hand. Which brings us to:
2) Patrick Smith on Malaysia Airlines. At Ask The Pilot, airline pilot and aviation writer Patrick Smith makes the frustrating but unavoidable point about the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight: We have no idea what happened, and it may be a long time (if ever) before we do.
Here are the tactical points involved in this argument:
Commercial airline flight is now statistically so safe that when something does go wrong, the causes are often mysterious by definition. That is because the non-mysterious risks for airlines have been buffed away. The most famous recent exception was the Asiana crash at SFO last year. It looked from the start like a simple case of pilot error, and that is where all subsequent evidence points. But many other tragedies have taken months or years to sleuth out.
The first reports after a crash should be viewed with great suspicion, because experience shows they're probably wrong. What the NYT says in its current headline about Malaysia Airlines applies to most disaster coverage:
For this reason it would be great to have a 24-hour tape-delay on most disaster coverage as well.
This goes in spades for any coverage on the lines of, "This latest tragedy proves that [theory X] is true." Most instant-analyses of this sort I can think of were grossly wrong; when they're right, that's often due to luck rather than insight. This principle applies not only to air crashes but also to mass shootings, bombings, episodes of suspected terrorism, and similar tragedies for which people crave an explanation.
Might the Malaysian plane have broken up in flight? Yes. Might it have been hijacked? Perhaps. Might both pilots have conked out? Maybe. Could there have been an on-board bomb? Perhaps. Does this show a problem with the Boeing 777? Likely not. Does it have anything to do with the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco? Hard to imagine how it could. Did the stolen passports matter? Conceivably. Might the plane have been hit by a meteor? Or undone by pilot suicide? I suppose anything is possible. But these are all in the realm of "would King Kong beat Godzilla?" until there is more evidence, which can take a long time.
The strategic point is: We do craveexplanations, especially for bad news. Pilots are more prone to this tendency than anyone else. If you pick up an aviation magazine, you'll see that half the stories concern disasters, usually with the theme: Here is why bad things happened, and how to keep them from happening to you. But sometimes bad things happen for reasons no one can explain. Let's hope there is at least an instructive explanation, eventually, for this one.
Update: I am sorry to see that the usually excellent Foreign Policy has gone in for speculation-ahead-of-facts in a big way, e.g. here and, with the caveat that it is reporting on speculation, here.
3) Jim Sleeper on the New Cold War. In an item about Leon Wieseltier for The Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper gives another instance of what I'm suggesting is a larger point: that rushing, quickly, to larger self-confident, self-righteous stands is usually a source of error. He reminds us of what a group of "strategists" told the public a few days after the 9/11 attacks:
[E]ven if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.
People who react this way have the right temperament for cable talk shows but the wrong one for decisions about the national interest. Cable pundits are in business to say, "The evidence is not yet in, but we know this means [xxx]." Give us leaders (and accident investigators) willing to say, Calm down. Breathe. Let's wait a minute, and think.
As I write (at 9:40pm EST in the US, 0240 March 8 GMT), things look bad for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but nothing is known for sure.
The most illuminating information I have seen so far is this log from Flight Aware. It shows that the airplane had leveled off at 35,000 feet -- and then suddenly was not transmitting any more information about its location, speed, altitude, or rate of climb or descent.
[Update: Flight Aware is imperfect, as I've written here many times. Also, the Lat/Long of its last report for this flight is over the Malay peninsula and is less than one hour after takeoff, versus the 2 hours that we've heard in many news reports. This goes into the category of "All early reports about air incidents are contradictory, confusing, and often wrong." But still the indications are not good.]
It is hard to imagine a systemwide failure of the transponder and other reporting equipment that could have made the plane stop transmitting any information and yet still be flying along safely. And in that case, it would presumably have tried to land somewhere along the Malay peninsula or in Indochina.
The main insight I have to add for now is: Whatever happened, it is unlikely to reflect chronic shoddiness with Malaysian Airlines, which in my experience is a good, competent, and modern airline (I have flown MAS many times, including during the two years I lived in Malaysia in the 1980s, and more recently along this route), nor with the Boeing 777, a good and well-experienced airplane. Beyond that, we await further news with best wishes for all involved.
12-hours-later update: Flightradar24 has more detailed reporting on what appear to be the plane's last known positions, over the South China Sea.
1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.
The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:
[before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
[after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.
Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.
Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.
2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.
You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.
I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...
3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.
Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.
Which leads us to ...
4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.
But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:
Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.
Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.
It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.
While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the WashingtonPost's editorial page. He replies:
Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.
Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**
Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?
* To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.
** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.
Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.
WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there.
It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:
Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?
I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?
Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?
I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?
On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.
But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...
In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.
1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.
And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.
It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside. (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.
Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:
In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.
But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.
I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.
2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?
This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.
Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Timesarguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline...
... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:
There will be public press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts.
This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.
When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping.
US News appreciation of John Boyd, 1997 (Pages photocopied from University of Miami library)
I mentioned last week that among the contents of its pre-2007 archives that US News had irresponsibly eliminated, without warning, was a short essay I wrote when the military strategist John Boyd died. I met Boyd in the late 1970s, described him in (and was guided by him for) my book National Defense, and stayed in touch until his death in March, 1997.
Somewhere in the attic I have my physical copies of US News from that era, when I was its editor. But I am not there to go pawing through the boxes, so I am grateful to Bill Tallman of the University of Miami, who went to the library, found that issue, and made a photocopy of the page.
Below you’ll see the page layout with a picture of John Boyd in his Korean War-fighter pilot era, followed by the text of the article. I post it here partly in thanks to Mr. Tallman; partly to give this account of Boyd’s life and influence some continuing online existence, now that it has been zapped from its original home; and partly because the latest Pentagon budget (including the decision to discontinue the A-10 "Warthog" airplane) is the kind of thing Boyd would have had a lot to say about.
More on the substance later. For now, I give you John Boyd ca. 1997, from back in the era when Dick Cheney was among the "military reformers."
A Priceless Original
True originality can be disturbing, and John Boyd was maddeningly original.
His ideas about weapons, leadership, and the very purpose of national security changed the modern military. After Boyd died last week of cancer at age 70, the commandant of the Marine Corps called him "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war.'' Yet until late in his life, the military establishment resisted Boyd and resented him besides.
Boyd was called up for military service during the Korean War and quickly demonstrated prowess as an Air Force fighter pilot. More important, he revealed his fascination with the roots of competitive failure and success. U.S. Planes and pilots, he realized, did better in air combat than they should have. In theory, the Soviet-built MiG they fought against was far superior to the F-86 that Boyd flew. The MiG had a higher top speed and could hold a tighter turn. The main advantage of the F-86 was that it could change from one maneuver to another more rapidly, dodging or diving out of the MiG's way. As the planes engaged, Boyd argued, the F-86 could build a steadily accumulating advantage in moving to a "kill position'' on the MiG's tail.
Boyd extended his method--isolating the real elements of success--while maintaining his emphasis on adaptability. In the late 1950s, he developed influential doctrines of air combat and was a renowned fighter instructor. In the 1960s, he applied his logic to the design of planes, showing what a plane would lose in maneuverability for each extra bit of weight or size--and what the nation lost in usable force as the cost per plane went up. Within the Pentagon, he and members of a "Fighter Mafia'' talked a reluctant Air Force into building the F-16 and A-10--small, relatively cheap, yet highly effective aircraft that were temporary departures from the trend toward more expensive and complex weapons.
Warrior virtues. After leaving the Air Force as a colonel in 1975, Boyd began the study of long historical trends in military success through which he made his greatest mark. He became a fanatical autodidact, reading and marking up accounts of battles, beginning with the Peloponnesian War. On his Air Force pension, he lived modestly, working from a small, book-crammed apartment. He presented his findings in briefings, which came in varying lengths, starting at four hours. Boyd refused to discuss his views with those who would not sit through a whole presentation; to him, they were dilettantes. To those who listened, he offered a worldview in which crucial military qualities--adaptability, innovation-- grew from moral strengths and other "warrior'' virtues. Yes- man careerism, by-the-book thought, and the military's budget-oriented "culture of procurement'' were his great nemeses.
Since he left no written record other than the charts that outlined his briefings, Boyd was virtually unknown except to those who had listened to him personally--but that group grew steadily in size and influence. Politicians, who parcel out their lives in 10-minute intervals, began to sit through his briefings. The Marine Corps, as it recovered from Vietnam, sought his advice on morale, character, and strategy. By the time of the gulf war, his emphasis on blitzkrieglike "maneuver warfare'' had become prevailing doctrine in the U.S. military. As a congressman, Dick Cheney spent days at Boyd's briefings. As defense secretary, he rejected an early plan for the land war in Iraq as being too frontal and unimaginative--what Boyd would have mockingly called "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle''--and insisted on a surprise flanking move.
John Boyd laughed often, yet when he turned serious, his preferred speaking distance was 3 inches from your face. He brandished a cigar and once burned right through the necktie of a general he had buttonholed. He would telephone at odd hours and resume a harangue from weeks before as if he'd never stopped. But as irritating as he was, he was more influential. He will be marked by a small headstone at Arlington Cemetery and an enormous impact on the profession of arms.
For the next few days we'll be reporting from St. Marys, a tiny town in the coastal marshland of farthest-south Georgia. Immediately to the east is Cumberland Island, now a National Seashore and once the site of Carnegie family vacation mansions. Immediately to the south is the St. Marys River, which is the border with Florida. To the west is the Okefenokee Swamp, plus the woodlands that have fed Georgia's paper- and plywood-making industries. And just north of downtown is the home base for a significant portion of America's nuclear-submarine fleet, which has transformed everything about life in this town.
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When my wife and I were 20 years old, we were (with my 18-year-old sister and other teammates, all under the auspices of Ralph Nader) part of a project in St. Marys that led eventually to the revelation of murder plots, prolonged federal trials, and the overturning of what had been had been an incredibly corrupt and incestuous local political-commercial order. More about that soon.
We've come back to see the results of the jolts up and down for this town in all the intervening decades. As a first installment, a few snapshots of the Mardi Gras festival in this town of 25,000 people, and the trip there.
Nearing St. Marys, marshland in the foreground, Atlantic Ocean far away, factory in neighboring town in middle distance.
Downtown St. Marys, as we're coming in to land.
While I'm at it, one of several "controlled burns" we passed (staying upwind) en route, mainly in the Carolinas.
On the ground, the Navy leads today's Mardi Gras parade, in what has become a Navy town.
As the parade announcer said, "they're here -- both of them!"
In fact, there were more. (For the record, in 2012 Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 8 points in Georgia as a whole, and by 28 points in Camden County, home of St. Marys.)
Men marching against domestic violence....
... under the slogan that they were "man enough to walk a mile in her shoes."
Contingent from one hair salon.
And from another.
Trying to restore a downtown.
Putting the Gras in Mardi Gras.
Temperature on departure from Gaithersburg, outside Washington: 15F. By this afternoon in southern Georgia, people were complaining about the "chill" but -- see for yourself. On Sunday it will be in the mid 70s.
Stay warm in the north. (Photos by James and Deborah Fallows.)
The second-easternmost bar in America. (Photo James Fallows)
Yesterday I rashly entered the "when does west become east?" debate, involving whether Maine or Alaska can more properly claim to include the furthest-east point in the United States.
Now we hear from none other than Captain Bob Peacock, a protagonist of my story about Eastport, Maine in the January issue of the magazine, to resolve the dispute:
Sail rock off West Quoddy Head [right] in Lubec is the Easternmost Point.
Lubec is the Easternmost Town,
Eastport is the Easternmost City.
And Annabells in Lubec would be the Easternmost Bar in the country, only slightly beating out the Waco in Eastport [above] by about 30 feet.
These things truly matter in the Down East World.
And further on east/west issues, from a reader:
I agree with Mr. Godfrey ["Alaska is furthest east" in previous item], in the sense that it's a good trivia question. It's also a good way to demonstrate the extraordinary size and breadth of our largest state. On the other hand, Mr Strip ["No, it's Maine"] is more correct from an 'intuitive' sense, as you and he pointed out.
But it reminds me of another favorite 'wrong' geographic trivia question: What body of water does the east end of the Panama Canal open in to?
Here is where we have a discussion over Atlantic vs. Caribbean, or how to pronounce 'Caribbean'. But the correct answer is: the Pacific Ocean.
Mr Godfrey might say that the Pacific entrance to the canal has a more eastern longitude than the Atlantic (Caribbean) entrance. Mr Strip might argue that it is irrelevant, since a ship traveling from Pacific to Atlantic is traveling easterly, so intuitively the 'east' end of the Canal is the Atlantic side.
As shown here:
I knew this already, having been through the canal with my friend Bob Pastor at the time of its transfer to Panamanian control. But in case you didn't: Now you do!
This new video by Stephy Chung, shot over the past few days of worse-than-ever airpocalypse in Beijing, is worth noticing for several reasons:
- If you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll recognize many of the scenes and even more of the details and moves. A high proportion of the people shown are foreigners, along with young Chinese dancing the way people would in any country. But the stretch from 1:10 to 1:20 is a little distillation of Chinese-style public dance and movement. On walks in Beijing I have stopped to watch the very people shown in this passage, and I've talked with the elegant woman who pops in at 1:15 (just before the pink-haired girl with Mickey Mouse sweater). Plus, where else do you see such enjoyment of haw-on-a-stick? (The red things starting at 0:47) And the heavy tarpaulins at subway and store entrances, and the little ceramic pots of yogurt, and lots more.
- The clip also shows the hunkered-down nature of winter in big city China -- the bulky coats, the hats and gloves, the general discomfort. And of course the air, which I won't belabor except to say that all the messages I've received from friends in Beijing this week center on the unendurable new level of pollution. And the willed denial of those circumstances that is necessary to get through the day.
++ Bonus policy point: In the largest sense, "sustainability" is obviously the challenge for any society or economic system. But in a very immediate way, environmental sustainability is by far the largest and most urgent challenge for China. The country's blackened skies, poisoned lands and waters, and untrustworthy food are a public health menace; they are an emerging political threat to the government; they are the main challenge that China's rise creates for the world as a whole. ++
- The video is obviously a planned and staged production, but it both portrays on purpose and captures by accident some of the individualistic spontaneity and chaos of Chinese life, which for me is an enormous part of the appeal of the place and its people.*
- It's also a complement to the Pomplamoose version of the same song I mentioned recently. If you didn't see that before, you should see it now: it's embedded once more down below.
On the other hand: yesterday the latest offering from the state-controlled China Daily arrived inside the WaPo at our house. The pages look a little wrinkled here due to exposure to yet another dose of the unending polar-vortex snow:
I've always joked that the China Daily was my favorite newspaper, because it so often rivals The Onion in the earnest preposterousness of its views.
The joke is wearing off for me, because of the crackdown on international and domestic reporters underway this past year in China. It's harder and harder for outsiders even to get visas there. (On my latest trip three months ago, I got no word about my visa until literally the day before departure, and this for a gathering that the Chinese government itself had authorized. The visa was for a single entry only, and ten days' stay.) It's riskier for domestic reporters to look into "sensitive" matters, above all involving the personal fortunes of the rulers' families. Last month, civil-society advocates in Hong Kong were alarmed when the editor of a leading independent newspaper there, Kevin Lau of Ming Pao, was fired after his paper had undertaken some muckraking investigations of the mainland leadership. A few days ago in Hong Kong he was stabbed, in a still-unexplained but ominous attack. (I discussed this yesterday on Here and Now, along with Shirley Yam of Hong Kong.)
So drollery about "my favorite newspaper" doesn't seem as droll any more. And although I understand all the logical reasons why China Daily should be able to piggyback on the Washington Post -- it's a free country, the material is marked as a special supplement, closing down info is never a good answer, the WaPo needs the money -- the contrast is grating. At a time when China is trying to keep foreign reporters from even entering its country, it's injecting a direct shot of Chinese-government perspective into our capital-city papers. This is not "dangerous" in any way, but it's annoying.
Bonus point one, the Pomplamoose cover of Pharrell Williams's Happy.
*Bonus point two, a passage from China Airborne that is relevant in weighing the always-mixed news out of that country.
The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.
Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky.
Thanks to Lawrence Wilkinson, @samsteinhp, and @bgavio for pointers to screenshot above and this installment in the ongoing saga.
Hypothesis undergoing long-term testing: Under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the "harmonization" of the Wall Street Journal shows up not on its editorial page, which was already the right-wing counterpart to Pravda, nor in the actual content of its articles, still the products of a generally first-rate reportorial staff.
Instead it turns up in headlines, story play, and immediate Rorschach-test moments like this. Tonight's results once again fit the hypothesis.
For previous steps down the harmonization road, see previous installments one, two, three, and four.
While I'm on the subject of the press, this update about US News. Lucy Byrd Lyons, a friend and former Atlantic colleague who now is communications manager for US News, wrote asking me to clarify my latest item about the magazine's zapping of its pre-2007 online archives. As part of the peroration I said, "The place where most people had assumed their work would 'live' for search and retrieval purposes, the magazine's own site, had been removed for the first 74 years' worth of the magazine's existence."
Lucy Lyons reminds me that for most of the period after the magazine's founding in 1933, there was no Internet and thus no online version of its contents. Fair point! Even though many publications including the Atlantic have been investing for years in digitizing olden-days articles to bring them online.
Still, if anyone thought I meant that archives from the FDR or LBJ eras were being purged, sorry for the confusion. I didn't mean that. I meant that the first dozen-plus years of the magazine's online existence had, with no advance word, been eliminated. And while I'm at it, a representative message of the many I've received from the info-tech world:
As someone who has been in IT technology for decades, the decision shouldn't be whether US News can afford to migrate the older archives into the new content management system (CMS) and if not, to remove them.
If it doesn't make economic sense to migrate them, then just leave them as is and have the new CMS provide a hook to the old system. With the low cost of servers and storage these days, running the old archive on a separate system would be cheap, although they may still have to maintain old software licenses. It may not be elegant but the new/old combination would work just fine, especially if there hasn't been a strong demand for the older archives. Access is key, performance is secondary.
Here endeth the US News archive saga as far as I'm concerned. Although if anyone happened to store the USN appreciation I wrote of retired Air Force colonel and still-influential military theorist John Boyd when he died in 1997, I'd be glad to have it. I can't seem to find it online any more.
I would like to correct a geographical inaccuracy: the easternmost point in the U.S. is not in Maine at all; it is in Alaska. The 180th meridian of longitude divides east from west and runs through the Aleutian Islands. So, in Alaska, one could stand facing north with one’s left foot on the easternmost point in the U.S. and one’s right foot on the westernmost. The dateline, however, zigzags, to keep political subdivisions in the same time zone. Thus, although Maine is not the easternmost place in the U.S., it sees the sun before Alaska on any given day.
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I know that a person as punctilious as this correspondent will be grateful for even further refinement of his point. Toward that end I offer this rejoinder just now from reader David Strip, of New Mexico.
While John Godfrey is correct that the point in the US with the easternmost longitude lies in Alaska, I find this irrelevant to the notion of finding the extreme point in a given direction.
Most reasonable people would find the easternmost point of a contiguous landmass by a process mathematically equivalent to drawing a line of longitude through the landmass and sweeping it in an easterly direction until it touches a single point. That would be the easternmost point.
The problem is slightly complicated when the country in not contiguous, though in that case I suspect most people would pick the starting point of their sweep to be either the center of mass of the country (if you're mathematically inclined), or at some point inside the largest component of the country. The fact that Godfrey himself points out that the easternmost point lies to the west of the westernmost points out the absurdity of his claim.
I am with Mr. Strip. If you start at any point in the United States and, contrary to the advice of Horace Greeley, keeping heading east, the coastal reaches of "Down East" Maine are where you'll end up. And the only possible contender to Eastport as the place at which you could make no further progress east would be the neighboring town of Lubec, which is microscopically closer to the watery boundary with Canada. Eastport is in green below, Lubec in red.
A zillion miles to the west, we have the extremities of the Aleutians, where they are so far west that they switch from West to East longitude. Sensibly, the International Date Line swings out at this point to include those in the furthest-west time zone of the United States and for that matter of the world.
Emboldened by the date line, I'm sticking with Eastport for the easternmost crown.
If you'd like to play around with lat-long yourself -- and, as a bonus, if you'd like to explore further the "Tapestry" sociological mapping of every neighborhood in the United States, feel free to dig into the zoomable, searchable, interactive map from Esri, below. It starts out in Eastport but can take you anywhere in the country.
This is like the one my wife included in her recent "Why We Never Get Over High School" post. As a reminder, you click on the colored segments, which become more refined as you zoom in, to see the pop-up description of the demographics of each area. Some temporary performance problems made the Tapestry segments unavailable for a while, so if you missed it before this is another chance. A standalone full-screen version of the Tapestry map is here.